The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 16, 2018

Ropke, Wilhelm
William F. Campbell - 03/23/12
Lifespan: (1899–1966)

Perhaps the most important conservative economist of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Röpke’s thought combined the classical liberalism of Adam Smith’s political economy with the European tradition of Christian humanism. To put his importance in easily understood terms, he was able to maintain in one coherent project the best of the logical rigor of Ludwig von Mises, the social understanding of Friedrich von Hayek, the anticommunism of Frank Meyer, and the conservative temper of Russell Kirk.

Born in Schwarmstedt, Germany, Röpke received his doctorate in political science in 1921 from the University of Marburg. Because he was a staunch opponent of Hitler in the very earliest years, he was forced to emigrate, becoming a professor at the University of Istanbul from 1933 to 1937. In 1937 he went to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Even during the 1930s Röpke had no illusions about either the economic success or the moral superiority of Soviet communism. He was a staunch opponent of all varieties of totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Soviet, all his life.

In Europe after the war Röpke was one of the architects of the “social market economy.” He was part of a group of humane scholars—the Ordo liberals, which included Alexander Rüstow, Walter Eucken, and Luigi Einaudi—who during World War II laid the intellectual groundwork for the Christian Democratic movement that would reconstruct Europe and resist Soviet expansion. This group also played an important role in reestablishing the market economy in Germany after World War II, which combined respect for private property, free markets, competition, and a limited, federalized government. They helped persuade Ludwig Erhard to accompany the introduction of the Deutschmark with a lifting of Nazi-era wage and price controls. This bold move made possible the German “economic miracle,” a term Röpke did not like because he considered Germany’s economic recovery to be the natural result of free markets and competition. His wartime book The Solution of the German Problem (1945)—which argued for a loose, Swiss-style confederation of German states—helped convince postwar Germans to decentralize power, granting far more independence and power to the individual states than that enjoyed by French departments or British counties.

Röpke also played a significant role in the early years of the Mont Pelerin Society, in which he served as president. His conservative and religious views were in tension with the more secular, libertarian views of some of its members. Although his methodology and economics were Austrian in large part, he did not have the tendency of some libertarians to exalt the private sector at the expense of legitimate governmental functions nor did he denigrate the substantive truths of morality. In fact, he believed that a market economy could not be planted or would not survive without the moral capital and social cushion provided by tradition, religion, and civic-minded citizenship. He deplored the “cult of the colossal” and the uncritical embrace of technological advancement, and he worried about the consequences of population growth and unrestricted immigration.

Although he was a Protestant, Röpke respected Catholic social teaching and its embrace of small business, small farms, and “subsidiarity”—the doctrine that political decisions ought to be made locally wherever possible and only delegated upward to central authorities when absolutely necessary to the common good. Like the Chestertonian distributists, Röpke held that the widespread dissemination of private property (especially land) and economic power was the best safeguard against socialism and totalitarianism. He warned that the amassing of great wealth in the hands of the few was merely a waystation on the road to collectivism. He held up as a model the Swiss constitution (modeled in 1848 on the then-decentralized American system), noting that citizens in that country paid most of their taxes to their local governments. In terms of public policy, Röpke subscribed to the American view of substantive due process and a federalist understanding of legitimate police powers.

Röpke wrote elegantly and persuasively, and most of his numerous books have been translated into English and many other languages. His textbook, The Economics of the Free Society (1937), is probably the best introduction to free-market economics available. The first two books of his trilogy, The Social Crisis of Our Time (1942) and The Moral Foundations of Civil Society (1944), are excellent syntheses of social conservatism and market economics. Probably his most important work for the conservative intellectual movement in the United States has been his late collection of essays A Humane Economy (1958).

Further Reading
  • Röpke, Wilhelm. Against the Tide. Translated by Elizabeth Henderson. Chicago: Regnery, 1969.
  • ———. International Economic Disintegration. London: William Hodge, 1942.
  • Zmirak, John. Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2001.
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